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Few ensemble films are as well conceived and executed as Kamla Abou Zekry’s “One-Zero.” Set in Cairo on the eve of an important soccer match, Mariam Naoum’s nuanced script exposes the compromises and hypocrisies necessary to negotiate the class, religion and gender mine fields of contempo Egyptian life. A modest success at home still generating a buzz more than six months after its release, “One-Zero” has the kind of popular indie legs that could easily kick aside uninformed expectations of Arab cinema and go on to do respectable Euro arthouse biz.

In structure and tone, the pic shows its debts to Western indie cinema, yet proudly retains its Egyptian flavor, once again proving the versatility and talent brewing in the region. An opening montage clearly introduces the characters and makes each one interesting. At the top of the social ladder is Niveen (Ilham Shaheen), a wealthy divorcee of a certain age joyfully discovering she’s pregnant. Younger b.f. Sherif (Khaled Abol Naga) is a hard-drinking TV presenter deeply uncomfortable in his own skin. Pop singer Nina (Zeina), a pretty new face aware of her vocal limitations, is a guest on his show.

Nina, real name Nadia, broke up with hairdresser Adel (Ahmed El Fishawy) to become the mistress of sleazy impresario Selim (Hussein El-Imam) with a view to making life better for herself and her family. Religious sis Riham (Nelly Karim) loathes what her sister has become yet benefits from the financial support. Meanwhile, Adel uneasily coexists with his mother, Hoda (Entessar), a hot-headed itinerant cosmetician struggling to negotiate the pitfalls of desire and financial stability. Lowest on the ladder is Ragab (Lotfi Labib), a doped-up parking lot attendant whose grandson Ali (Kamel Ashraf) has become a shyster of the first order at a very young age.

While setting the action on the eve of a major sports event isn’t exactly new, and the jubilant finale does leave auds on an artificially high note, the helmer and scripter are too intelligent to imply that fans united in celebrating a soccer match will become catalysts for some kind of lasting societal change. Most impressive of their achievements is the level of complexity within each personality, and the deft way in which expectations are continuously upended through gradual, subtle revelations.

Though pointing out the corruption within Egypt’s police force and government has become almost routine in the country’s cinema, “One-Zero” sees those problems as part and parcel of a larger dysfunction that includes a sexist double standard.

Riham is especially well delineated, her visible religious devotion troubled by a love of consumerism and flirtation. Karim gives her best performance, as do most of her terrific co-stars. Shaheen is on a real roll following her performance in “Fawzeya’s Secret Recipe,” and Abol Naga has gone well beyond heartthrob status, proving he’s a multilayered actor worthy of psychologically complex roles. Also deserving special praise is Entessar, less familiar to international auds but memorable here as the expansive, explosive Hoda.

Much has been made of the largely female crew: director, scripter, d.p. and editor. Zekry has unquestionably passed a milestone with this, her fourth feature, and Naoum, with her first screenplay, deserves to become a hot property. Mona Rabei’s editing successfully juggles the multiple strands without losing any threads, and though there’s one multi-character montage too many, the pic’s rhythm and flow rarely falter. Lensing by Nancy Abdel Fattah (“Fawzeya’s Secret Recipe,” “These Girls”) incorporates handheld camerawork without making a fetish of it, and she’s got the mixture of Cairo’s chaos and breathing spaces just right.

Pic has generated some controversy at home among the Coptic community thanks to a scene in which Copt Niveen goes to a lawyer to complain about the church’s refusal to grant her the right to remarry.

One-Zero

Egypt

  • Production: A Cinema Sector/Egyptian Media Prod. City production. Produced by Mamdouh El Leithy. Executive producer, Aly Meselhy. Directed by Kamla Abou Zekry. Screenplay, Mariam Naoum.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Nancy Abdel Fattah; editor, Mona Rabei; music, Khaled Shokry; production designer, Amir Abd El-Aati; costume designer, Dalia Youssef; sound (Dolby), Ahmed Gaber. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 9, 2009. Running time: 115 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Ilham Shaheen, Nelly Karim, Khaled Abol Naga, Ahmed El Fishawy, Zeina, Entessar, Lotfi Labib, Hussein El-Imam, Kamel Ashraf, Aida Riyad, Adel Amr, Tamer Magdy, Omar El Saeed, Rasha Nabil, Mohamed Alaa.